The ABCs of Middle Level Education
Six Final Words to Create a Great School for Young Adolescents!
It's time for us to bid farewell to our good friend, the letter C, for the ABCs blog. Before we move to our next letter, let's take a look back at sensational, scintillating C. We've looked at the magical middle grades through the lenses of Conversation, Cross-Content exploration, Cross-Pollination Professional Development, Courageous Construction, Critical Urgency and a whole slew of 22nd Century Cs. And we've learned a lot, haven't we? But with any list, it's inevitable that words get left out. Not intentionally. Not maliciously. No harm meant, but to pay honor to some of those words, here's a final list of six C words related to middle level education: (what words would you include?)
Confident: As middle school educators, we must be confident in our efforts, in our fellow teachers, in our administrators, in our students—even as we provoke, nudge, and push for change. And as middle school educators, we must continually instill confidence in our students, so they, too, can feel empowered to make positive changes in their lives and in their communities.
Cheese: I am an unabashed fan of all cheeses—in a wrapper, in a tub, in a squeezy can, sprayed on a Cheeto, aged, shredded, etc. Cheese (in whatever form) is a beautifully diverse and accessible tool, and the educational experiences (in all of their forms) we offer young adolescents should be equally malleable, ready, and delightful. However, we should be careful not to lean too heavily on the pre-wrapped cheese when feeding ourselves and others. Similarly, we need to operate with the same caution when using pre-packaged, purchased lessons, curricula, etc. A product that is convenient doesn't mean that it's quality.
Chaos: A couple of thoughts about chaos. First, many people assume that young adolescents desire a chaotic environment. They mistakenly think our students' changing, shifting minds are like wanton tornadic weather systems that enjoy spinning and causing destruction everywhere. Those of us who work with young adolescents know that they seek out and thrive when there is consistency, routine, and structure. Now, they may buck up against our fence lines, but they feel safe because they're there. Second, the ability to work in chaos is one of the most important skills a middle school educator and administrator needs. It's critical to be organized. It's vital to manage time well. But it's equally important to know how to function when nothing is organized and nothing happens according to plan.
Climate: I've read recently that climate grows culture. Basically, the small, daily things we do create the climate in our schools, and over time, those repeated actions foster the school-wide culture. If you want a negative, toxic culture, let the naysayers have their say at every meeting. Let the pessimists push their agendas on us to drive out bold innovations. Let the extinguished educators squash the fire of the distinguished, passionate ones. However, it you want a positive, collaborative culture, don't wait for an administrator to clean it up. Stand up and fight back against those little minds and their little actions by committing acts of hope, teaching lessons of innovation, and spreading words of promise. Through little steps, you can be the one who shifts the culture of the grade level, the ID team, and the school. The kids are watching and waiting.
Comfort: A couple of dichotomous thoughts about this term, too. We definitely need to create comfortable learning environments for our students and ourselves. We all need places where we feel like we can express ourselves freely and take intellectual risks. Spaces where we can collaborate with peers and create progressive stuff. But too much comfort can be counterproductive. If we stay in our comfort zones and we don't push ourselves beyond them, we can stagnate and our cognitive clay can harden. We need to stay impressionable, so new learning can make an imprint. What would happen if we occasionally took a wrecking ball to the prescribed ZPD? What would it look like if we pushed our students and ourselves to new, challenging places despite the levels and labels we've been given?
Conference: There is only one national and international conference devoted to the critical middle grades, and that's the AMLE annual conference. While I know that I may be a little biased, I contend that there is no better conference around to inspire and propel greatness for the middle grades. There is no better professional learning event about middle level education to bring people together, to connect passionate educators, and to grow great schools for young adolescents. If you haven't been to an AMLE conference, now's the time: AMLE2017 will be in fabulous Philly on November 6-8. We have low rates and high impact. We have variety in the types of sessions and great speakers you thirst for. And it's going to be in Philly—need I say more? Get involved and get to it!
Again, as we say adios to the letter C, give this question some thought: What C words do you think relate to middle level education? What words did I leave off? Break out of your comfort zone and add them in the Comments section or on Twitter!
Walk the Walk about Talking the Talk!
Conversation is something that we often take for granted—like air. It swirls around us. We breathe it in. We listen to it as it bends and curves. Our ears hear it. However, even though it is as critical as the air we breathe, we often aren't really listening. By its very definition and etymology, conversation gives us life and purpose—because according to Merriam-Webster, a conversation is an "exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas." And if we look at the etymology of the word, it's even more telling. It derives from the Latin "convertere," which means "to turn around."
Why are the definition and origin of "conversation" so important to middle level education, in particular? They are vital for a couple of key reasons. First, young adolescents are trying to achieve in multiple areas, and one of those areas is the social-emotional one. That's why our students need conversational practice (yes, we're talking about practice) so they can understand what it means to share and "exchange" ideas that may result in a change or "turn" in opinion. Too often, though, the discussions they hear and witness in their communities, on their televisions, in the hallways, etc., aren't civil, balanced, collaborative conversations during which both parties learn something from each other. Instead, they witness power struggles during which each person tries to win the talking war so their opinion is victorious and the other opinion is silenced or relegated to the shadows. How can we create and promote a positive climate and culture in our schools if that is how they see, experience, and do conversation? How can we implement a Positive Behavioral Intervention System (PBIS), if language and conversation are used to divide and conquer instead of to bring together?
The answer goes back to modeling and practice. Teachers and staff need to be sure that they are demonstrating effective conversational strategies so students can hear and see how it's done. Verbal and nonverbal cues. Turn-taking. Summarizing. Body language. Politely disagreeing. Affirming. We are the head cooks in the conversational kitchen, and we should be using those dialogue ingredients liberally for ourselves and for our students. We are the models of conversation. In fact, school may be the only place that gives them strong examples of civil discourse and talk. In addition to modeling, it's about time. Thus, we need to provide opportunities for students to talk with each other in structured and unstructured times—and with our support along the way. We need to ensure that time is afforded in lesson plans for students to converse with each other, and not just at the end of the class (in order to fill up time or because they've earned it). Rather, we should see conversation as integral to teaching and learning in the middle grades. Young adolescents are learning the subtle and not-so subtle nuances of language now. We can't wait until later.
And conversation is also critical for the middle grades because that's how we create and maintain relationships with the young adolescents we serve. Whether it's through homeroom or advisory or another less-structured time in the school day, we need to just talk to kids. We need to ask them good, caring questions about their lives—and then hush. Let them talk. Let them share. Stop talking at your students and start conversing. To see where such a conversation could take me, I recorded an interview with my own seventh grader, Parker, and his fourth grade brother, Holden, for your listening pleasure. I asked them questions about early adolescence, school, and their challenges and triumphs—and Parker asked me questions, as well. Get your ears ready, check out the conversation, and enjoy the totally appropriate middle school ending! And to be 110% clear, my sons and I talk all the time, so please don't think this interview is an isolated occurrence!
So let's devote time to conversation in the critical middle grades and explore an exchange of ideas with our students. What could we all learn? What could we all unlearn?
4 Scientific Ways to Create a Great School
One of the foundational concepts in the critical middle grades is cross-content learning. We create interdisciplinary plans and bridge curricula for a few reasons. First, we know that young adolescents learn more when they can see that something has relevance in another class. Therefore, we may ask our students to graph a character's journey throughout a short story, or we may prompt them to write original word problems in math that incorporate similes. Second, by integrating curricula, we know young adolescents learn more when they can see a content area through a new lens. Hence, we may ask students to react to the Battle of Gettysburg by comparing two paintings of that event so they use the lens of art to re-vision that historical moment, or we may urge them to read Civil War soldiers' letters so they use the emotional lens of primary source documents to see its gravity. Third, we also know that learning beyond the school house doesn't happen in separated content departments; rather, we learn using every discipline throughout our lives and jobs—and we want to prepare our students for that college and career reality.
So there it is: the benefits of a cross-content approach are clear. But it begs another question: wouldn't it be beneficial for us to apply the same cross-content, interdisciplinary framework to the world of sustained school improvement? Let's take that question out for a spin, rev up its engines, and try to connect aspects of science to improvement in the critical middle grades (and beyond)!
If you're an eager, passionate educator (and I know you are), take a cross-content look at your school through these four scientific lenses that all begin with the letter C:
- Constellations: I wrote about the concept of Constellational Leadership in an AMLE article a little while back, but it's on my mind again for three reasons. First, for sustainable school improvement, it's not about a couple of teacher or leader "superstars"; it's about how we align all of the stars we have in order to create something stellar. Second, when we see a star in the sky, the light we see could be millions of years away. So for sustainable school improvement, it's about seeing the immediate and long-term potential in the stars we have. Finally, this is also the time of year when we assess and evaluate the "brightness" of our stars. For sustained school improvement, it's not always about how bright they are—it's about how they are bright. Different stars shine in different ways for different reasons.
- Constructal Law: According to this theory (Adrian Bejan, 1996), flow systems thrive and evolve to provide easier access to imposed currents that flow through it. So a river evolves to provide water with an easier access to flow towards a larger body of water. Lungs and trees are shaped to provide an easier pathway for air to flow in and out. For sustained school improvement, we should see schools as constructed flow systems, as well, that should evolve to ensure increasingly better access for all of our stakeholders. Access to experience and shape curricula. Access to get and give information. Access to challenging, empowering learning experiences. Access to multiple opportunities for success. Therefore, we need to determine how our schools are evolving with equity-access in mind—and how they are impeding that access, as well.
- Circuitry: while I'm not a licensed electrician, I've put up lights on the holidays, so I know a thing or two about circuits. Depending on the type of circuit you have, if one bulb is out, the entire string of lights won't work. Fortunately, with the holiday lights, you're given another fuse to put into the bulb to get it going again. For sustained school improvement, it can be a very similar electrical circuit process. This is the time of year when we need to be particularly aware of the wattage of our educational bulbs—our own bulb and the bulbs around us. We may feel burned out. We may feel overheated. We may dim. Just like the string of lights, when one light goes down, it affects the entire circuit. Therefore, we need to be present and vigilant in each other's lives and know when someone needs a lift, a listen, or another fuse to spark their spirit through the school year (and into next year).
- Collision theory: This theory posited by Max Trautz (1916) and William Lewis (1918) states that successful collisions between particles happen when there is enough energy—also known as activation energy—at the moment of impact to break the preexisting bonds and form all new bonds and result in a product. We can increase the number of successful collisions by increasing the concentration of the reactant particles or raising the temperature. For sustained school improvement, the collision theory spells out interesting parallels for teachers and leaders. To grow our schools and create a collaborative culture, we need to bring together more voices, minds, and hearts into the decision-making. No decisions should be made in isolation—one particle by itself. Rather, we need to increase the number of reactant particles so we can increase our chances for successful, purposeful collisions. Hence, we need to add more people (and more diverse people) to our leadership teams as well as our student and parent councils. We need to provide more time in faculty meetings for people to discuss school improvement goals. Let them be the reactant particles bouncing around and talking without constraints. Will it always result in a perfect product? Not necessarily. Will it be messy? Perhaps. However the process will increase school-wide dialogue and successful collisions. We should be careful about increasing the temperature to create these collisions. Creating a sense of urgency and passion is critical, but teachers and stakeholders already feel enough heat and pressure when it comes to producing results. Heat can be an unpredictable element in the area of sustained school improvement. Use it wisely!
This cross-content, scientific examination of school improvement was a stretch for me, but sometimes to act on a concept in a new way, we need to see it through a new lens. So that's the challenge: invite your faculty and staff to look at your school, your vision/mission, middle level education, etc., using a cross-content lens. It may be just the thing to awaken, heighten, and rekindle their passion for sustained school improvement.
5 Ways to Create Buzzworthy PD
Spring is in the air. Trees are beginning to bud. Flowers are starting to blossom. And bees are doing their critical work among us, which makes me think about cross-pollination and how it connects with improving middle level education and ourselves through professional learning. While I don't claim to be an expert on bees, I do know how critical they are to what happens during the spring season. Here's what I know about our busy, buzzing pals: new flowers grow because bees jump from petal to petal, picking up new bits of pollen information, carrying it off, and spreading it around. Admittedly, there's more involved to that apiary process, but the connections to middle level education and the professional learning process are powerfully evident. In brief, bees are doing what we should be doing.
First, in This We Believe, the research shows that effective and amazing middle schools should be driven by "ongoing professional development [that] reflects best educational practices" (pp. 30-31). Therefore, just as bees never stop their cross-pollination work, we should be ever-vigilant and ever-mindful as we learn and grow. Great professional development shouldn't only happen on a designated PD day or when the district has brought in an educational consultant from the outside. Rather, buzzworthy professional learning should be something we constantly seek out—to better ourselves and our profession and to model lifelong learning for our students.
And as pedagogical professionals, we should emulate bees and practice professional learning through the power of cross-pollination. What does that mean exactly? That means that we can't just buzz around our own learning gardens, reading the same books and articles, visiting the same sites, talking with the same people, and exploring in the same way. Just as we challenge our students to stretch themselves and make learning engaging and exploratory, we need to push the boundaries of our ZPDs (zones of proximal development) and make professional learning buzzworthy. Here are 5 quick ways to get started:
1. Take peer observation to the next level. Nothing is more powerful than seeing best practices in action, but too often, we only buzz around teachers in our departments or shadow other leaders in our grade levels. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by emailing someone who teaches another grade or subject or someone who leads in another building, and set up a peer observation appointment and a post-observation appointment to discuss what was learned along the way. This can be particularly powerful for the transition process to and from the critical middle grades. Find out what's really happening at the elementary level with literacy. Discover how high school college and career readiness is really evolving. Instead of just guessing or wondering, let's get into each other's learning gardens, buzz around, and bring great ideas back!
2. Make teacher and staff interactions and learning active. It's difficult to get to know everyone in the school house—especially if your school is big and the faculty is large. As a result, we tend to buzz around the same corners and the same people we know, which is comfortable—but there are other folks to know and other places to learn. We also tend to see professional learning as an independent endeavor during which we passively absorb content and deal with it in isolation. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by turning staff learning into an active exploration. Having a large school can be a hindrance with this work, and that was definitely the case for one of the middle schools where I was an administrator. To work on this issue, we created a five-event social staff interaction game called the Pentathlon. Every month, we gave people five things to do that would get them buzzing around the school and connecting in different ways. Walk down another grade level's hallway during your planning time. Visit an art class. Talk with the head custodian about the best part of his day. It was completely voluntary, but those who participated learned a lot about the school, the staff, and themselves. And it improved our school's culture—especially as Pentathletes were crowned each month with banners above their doorways. On another professional learning day, we created "Mix-it-Up" lunch appointments (and "chat and chew" cards) for the faculty, so they could eat with other people in the building, talk in a relaxed atmosphere, and learn from each other. That was cross-pollination through social-interaction in action! And nobody droned on and on about it.
3. Explore other social media connections. Learning through online forums like Twitter has greatly expanded the field of professional learning because it connects folks around the world who also care about education. But there may also be a problem with that model because we tend to join the hashtags we know and discuss the topics about which we feel comfortable. For instance, I tend to buzz around #mschat and #satchat every week, which are both exhilarating tweet ups, but I don't check out other chats that may also help me grow. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by joining other tweet ups in other content areas, other states, and other countries around the globe. Google "Educational Twitter Chats" and explore the full calendar that's available. Then schedule a time (maybe with your team) to visit one new tweet up each week or monthto see what other people are discussing and sharing.
4. Reflect and share about learning in different ways. With the pace of our days, typical professional learning can feel like a drive-thru service: quick, convenient, and easily digestible. As a result, it can be difficult to find time to reflect and share about what we've learned—even though we know that those actions are essential to the learning process. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by lingering on the pedagogical petals longer and finding unique ways to reflect on what we've learned. For example, as a middle school administrator, I once had a math teacher who openly admitted that he was in a rut with his teaching. He was organized beyond organized. He had his lessons all planned out. But he wasn't going anywhere. We lingered on his professional learning and discussed his goals and tried something new: reflective journaling. Every week, he wrote his feelings down about what he wanted to try, what he thought about teaching and learning, and whatever else was on his mind. By the end of the year, he had discovered some new things about himself as a teacher because he had lingered, reflected in a new way, and made professional learning buzzworthy for himself.
5. Make PD conferences places for new connections. When we have the opportunity to go to a face-to-face learning event, such as a conference, we may spend time planning out the sessions we want to attend, the learning goals we want to address, and the resources we want to order from vendors. But do we plan out who we want to meet and connect with at the event—beyond the people from our own schools? Michael Fullan talks about the need to "deprivatize" education to help it (and ourselves) grow. In order to do that, we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate with other people at professional learning events. Fortunately, many conferences (like AMLE2017) are providing more time and more ways for attendees to connect, so take advantage of those moments and get engaged with other attendees who have new ideas and solutions. Get email addresses. Grab Twitter handles. Jot down phone numbers. And reach back out to these fellow busy bees after the conference is over. In other words, to make face-to-face PD buzzworthy, do more than fly with the bees from your own pedagogical garden!
So what are you doing like the bees would do to make professional learning buzzworthy for the critical middle grades and beyond?
7 Questions & Actions to Build Great Teaching, Learning, and Leading
Put your hard hats on and grab your tool belts, people. It's time to discuss construction in the critical middle grades. As a middle school and high school teacher, I always believed that learning happens as a constructionist endeavor—because it brings together individual mindsets, experiences, and prior knowledge and marries them into a collective understanding about something. To be 110% clear, it's not about creating a mental melting pot that melds everyone's thinking together and dissolves the individual perspective; rather, it's about creating a learning community that builds something together.
The same is true, in fact, for school administration. I always believed that sustained school growth happens when we collaboratively construct a common vision and speak with a common language about what we want to build on the bright landscape ahead. That doesn't mean that we erase or marginalize staff members who have a divergent point of view; rather, we celebrate and honor those differences as we construct. And it sounds messy and complicated. But really, the magic of educational construction in the middle grades should follow a simple formula: YBYS + IBMS=WLMST [You Bring Your Stuff and I'll Bring My Stuff and We'll Learn More Stuff Together]. Clearly, educational construction isn't as simple as bricks and mortar and blueprints, but there are similarities that are worth exploring. So if teaching and learning were like construction, what questions would we ask and what actions would we take to build something great for the students, teachers, and families we serve?
1. What do we want to build and why?
Action: Explore internal and external educational blueprints
and then courageously construct. Use internal blueprints (i.e., school, team, and grade visions; our students and their learning styles and interests; our own interests, vision, and philosophy about teaching and learning) and external blueprints (i.e., content area standards, community norms, and district and state vision and expectations).
2. What resources and tools will we need to build?
Action: Determine and request a stock of educational resources and then courageously construct. Use on-site materials (i.e., books, computers, teammates), off-site materials (i.e., primary source documents, websites, community members), and intra-site materials (i.e., time and emotional and mental currency).
3. Where do we want to build?
Action: Explore the potential internal and external learning environments and then courageously construct. Use internal spaces (i.e., classroom area, hallways, large rooms like the library, connected rooms, cafeteria), external spaces (i.e., outside, bus dock, outdoor playgrounds, community spaces, field trips), and intra-spaces (i.e., reflective space for mental and emotional journeys)
4. What's our building timeline?
Action: Figure out when this can happen and then courageously construct. Use internal chronographs (i.e., professional, classroom, team, grade level, and school calendars and the bell schedule), external chronographs (i.e., testing and district calendars and student and family calendars), intra-chronographs (i.e., personal and emotional calendars)
5. How will we involve everyone in the building process?
Action: Determine the interests, strengths, and challenges of all stakeholders, find roles for the work, and then courageously construct. Give interest and learning inventories to all stakeholders and use that information to decide on the individual roles and teams/groups needed for the work ahead, collaborate with teachers of all students to ensure that accommodations to the work are carefully planned, and inform families and community members and give them specific ways/times that they can be involved.
6. How will we know that we've successfully built something?
Action: Figure out the best ways to measure what's been built and then courageously construct. With all stakeholders, collaboratively construct a rubric that assesses the different elements of the work (i.e., interests and standards covered, social-emotional and behavioral learning elements examined, college and career readiness aptitudes/skills developed) and use that rubric throughout the work to determine progress, process, remediations, and celebrations.
So one last action step to drive it home: deconstruction. As critical participants in the craft of educational construction, we need to deconstruct and inspect foundations, especially as we approach new lists and charts, new experiences, new schools, and (even as this year begins to close) new school years on the horizon. With the construction of a house, if the foundation is cracked, misaligned or sinking, it doesn't matter how well we build the house itself. It's going to fall and fail. Similarly in the world of education, if the foundation upon which we construct teaching and learning isn't both flexible and resilient, that edu-home will falter, too. Therefore, before we practice educational construction, we should ask the hard questions that inspect and deconstruct the foundation of it all.
So as an educational construction-ist in the critical middle grades, what tough, inspired questions are you asking to deconstruct and courageously construct with your teachers, students, families, and community members?
Are Your Students Ready for the 22nd Century?
The four new 22nd Century Cs are here everyone, so buckle up. Get your mental crockpots ready to add these ingredients to the recipe. They are fresh. They are ready. They are now. And they mean no disrespect to the 21st Century Cs that we all know and love: Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Collaboration. Clearly, those Cs are essential parts of a balanced educational diet for every student—and in particular, for every young adolescent we serve. Yes, our students are communicating more than ever through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. In many ways, one single text with a message, a picture, an emoji, and a video link contains more reading tasks than most handwritten essays! And yes, we in the critical middle grades are helping them become more critical thinkers as they embark on those communicative efforts. And yes, we are also providing them more and more opportunities to create and collaborate in our classes through innovative practices like Genius Hour, Coding, Makerspace, and class blogs! In middle school we explode those 21st Century Cs on a daily basis for all students!
But the 22nd Century is around the corner! And our kiddos will need new Cs for that bright road forward. With one eye on the rearview mirror of the past, one eye on the windshield of the future, and both hands on the steering wheel, here are the four 22nd Century Cs that I propose for middle level education (and perhaps for all levels of education!):
- Care: To bring diverse hearts and minds together, we need to help our students understand and act from an ethic of care. Too often, we push our students with a lever of pragmatism—with an emphasis on production and efficiency to achieve a tangible goal. And while we need to get things done, tasks accomplished, and products 3D printed, we cannot do so at the detriment of care. We should instill in our students the need for both mindfulness and heartfulness: asking with care, listening with care, being present with care, following-up with care, writing and speaking with care, acting with care, etc. We don't need a packaged curriculum to accomplish that. We simply need to model and practice the art of care ourselves.
- Connection: To build positive bridges forward, we need to help our students understand and act on the desire to authentically connect with others. Sadly, many people in our society have lost the will to connect with others—especially others who have different opinions. It's easier to watch the news channel that aligns with our views. It's easier to stomach a tweet that matches our mindset. It's simpler to have a conversation with someone who has the same views that we have. But that's not how learning happens. Vygotsky knew it back in the day when he explored the concept of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development): we learn when we stretch ourselves to learn beyond our ZPD. Therefore, we need to fill our students with an unquenchable desire to connect with others—because they are curious and because they care. If we want our students to shake hands with a fellow human being regardless of their differences, we need to teach them the importance of connecting and stepping out of their insular comfort zone and into their open discomfort zone. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do that. We need to model it in our everyday practice.
- Culture: To create joyous, growth-mindset futures, we need to help our students understand how to create spaces of genuine positivity. Recent studies about the impact of happiness in the workplace from companies like Zappos have revealed that when the culture of the organization is positive and welcoming, people are more motivated and engaged in their work. They like what they do, and they want to do it well! In other words, while we can motivate people through negative factors like competition, greed, and fear, the culture created by such motivational factors is toxic and ultimately poisonous. Our classrooms and schools, therefore, need to be model cultures of joy, positivity, and happiness, so our young adolescent students can flourish and thrive as learners now, and most importantly, so they can know how to create those cultures themselves in future classrooms, schools, and work spaces. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.
- Community: To foster truly inclusive learning communities, we need to help our students understand and act on the value of involving all voices in the process. Too often, we operate and separate ourselves into silos that privatize, divide and ultimately limit our own capacity and the capacity of everyone around us. Instead of embarking in the messy work of community-building (which involves another key 22nd century C: compromise), we often like to stay in the safe confines of our own garden plots, tending the rows we know. However, communities form and flourish when we reach out to every stakeholder and involve them in the work. Thus, our schools need to make sure that we are doing more than simply informing parents, families, and business partners about what we're doing; rather, we need to seek out their opinions and insights. We should do this not only because it is critical work in cultivation and community-building. We should do it because it shows our students that they also need to practice this artful, challenging work if they want futures that embrace all voices and push back against the limiting, fence lines of division. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.
So how is your school preparing your students to practice the 22nd Century Cs, as well as those in the already distant 21st Century?
How Will You Share Our Critical Story?
Now we begin an exciting journey with the letter C, which is one of the most important letters in the world of middle level education. From the shape of it, it resembles an opening, a welcoming place, a safe harbor—all things that young adolescents want and need. While they may not shout it from the rooftops (because many of them are masters at "saving face" and acting "cool"), our students come to us looking for a steady, open place to land and bring their lives every day. It's up to us to maintain that openness in word, deed, communication, and in our supportive programs.
It's important to note as well that the C is rounded on its foundation, giving it the ability to flex and rock if something hits it suddenly and violently. That aspect of its shape is also important to consider as we think about the developmental responsiveness of our interactions with young adolescents and the initiatives we create to help them. While they must be steady and consistent, they cannot be so rigorous that they are inflexible. Rather, they must be able to bend and respond when the unexpected happens—and our young adolescents definitely bring the unexpected. In short, we have to be able to rock (like the C) when they roar.
And there's no denying that the sound of the letter C is the perfect sound for middle level education. Go ahead, say it. C. It seems to go on for miles and miles, open and expansive and ready to be the water for any vessel. An amazing middle grades school, teacher, administrator, staff member, after/before-school provider, or parent/guardian must behave and be present like the unflappable sea of C for every young adolescent they serve. The kids are counting on us to be the letter C: steady, calm, and a consistent way to carry them onward.
Now that we've covered the letter itself, what will be the first C word that we explore for the middle grades? Create? Construction? Community? Culture? Caterwaul? Cheeseburger? Perhaps critical is the best first word. Why? From my time in the classroom, in the administrative office, and in schools working with AMLE, I think there needs to be a greater sense of urgency about the middle grades. It's an undeniable fact that boatloads of attention (and funds) are paid to the elementary, high school, and higher education settings—oftentimes to the detriment of the middle grades. We are either forgotten, misunderstood, or relegated to the shadows.
But why is that? Are we not worthy of the same degree of attention? Do our students not deserve an equal place on the educational stage? Do our efforts for our young adolescents not require the same funds, policies, and advocacy? I think (and every middle level educator I know thinks) that our young adolescents deserve and require even more than an equal place. They should have a critical place, an elevated place on which we can shine a spotlight on their unlimited potential as well as on their blossoming, unique needs.
But too often we are told to wait. Too often we are told that our kids aren't ready. One prime example happened to me while I was speaking at a conference for college admissions counselors a couple years back, and I have to share it here because it continues to anger me to this moment. It screams to me about the lack of urgency that people feel about the middle grades. At this conference, the exhibit hall space was filled with vendors peddling the latest college and career wares (e.g., technology solutions, college trackers, occupation explorers). As the curious person I am, I walked casually yet earnestly through the hall and occasionally stopped to ask vendors, "So what kind of work do you do with middle schools and young adolescents?" Every single vendor looked at me like I was crazy to ask such a question and then without fail, they responded with, "Oh, those kids aren't really ready for this. We work with high schools and their students." As blood coursed through my veins, I nodded and walked away, resisting the urge to kick their booths down to the concrete floor with my red shoes. Not ready? Those kids? Why does that attitude prevail?
I have a theory. And it's related to storytelling. Despite all of our efforts, our research, and our pleas, the story that continues to be told about middle school is that it is a time of wild flux, crazy change, and unfettered shift for young adolescents. The narrative that most of our society loves to tell is this one: junior high/middle school is a horrible time (because we remember it as a horrible time for us) and middle school kids are aimless people with attitudes, acne, and awkwardness (like we remember ourselves back then) who don't know what they're doing now or what they want to do in the future. So yeah, why should we spend additional time and effort on middle school and those kids? Especially when it feels emotionally better to spend time and money on the story of elementary school and the "cute" and "innocent" characters in that tale, and similarly, when it feels more practical and forward-thinking to invest in the story of high school and the more "stable" and "prepared" characters in that tale.
That predilection and those misconceptions make me both angry and sad. I'm angry that people see middle school and young adolescents that way. Those of us who work with "those kids" fully embrace their uniqueness—because that's what makes them awesome. That's what makes them such a gift to work with every day. So it angers me that people prejudge middle school and then neglect us because they don't see it as a critical age. It also makes me sad because I'm part of the problem. I suppose I haven't done enough to tell the other story of middle school and of young adolescents so people understand just how amazing and critical the story is. Perhaps I haven't done enough to "flip the script" when people talk poorly about our students. I've celebrated middle school throughout Middle Level Education Month like I should, but perhaps I'm only sounding the proud trumpet in the same chamber every day.
So now's the time. It's time to blast the critical song of the middle grades to everyone so they can know what we know and feel what we feel... That middle school, middle grades, middle level education, and young adolescents are most definitely critical characters in the story of education's past, present, and glorious future. Pay attention and pay us mind.
So how, when, and to whom will you share middle level education's critical story?
Awareness, Acting, and More!
Sticking with the letter A, here's an Announcement: It's March, and Middle Level Education Month has officially begun! On behalf of everyone here at AMLE, thank you for everything you do every day to make teaching and learning blast off like a rocket for young adolescents. Thank you for advocating for young adolescents, for your fellow educators, and for the cause of the critical middle grades. Here are some quick ideas to help you celebrate Middle Level Education Month (MLEM):
- Visit www.amle.org/mlem for resources, sample advocacy letters, and tips for celebrating MLEM.
- Tweet a picture of you, your team, etc. with the "I Love Middle Grades" sign to #MLEM17
- Email April Tibbles, AMLE director of communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org or me at email@example.com with details about awesome MLEM celebrations happening at your school!
- And at any time during the month of March, feel free to randomly stand up (in a faculty meeting, on a bus, on the roof of the school, in a crowded restaurant, in a quiet library) and shout out loud and proud, "Hey! I was once a young adolescent! You were once a young adolescent! We were all once young adolescents! And I am proud to be a middle level educator who teaches, leads, and serves young adolescents every day!" (for this last suggestion, be ready to hear waves of applause or to run somewhere safe).
And with every beginning there is also usually an ending. So it's time to bid farewell to the letter A for this blog. It's brought us some good times and some serious times, hasn't it? Ideas about Access and Advocacy, Anger, Appreciation, and Adolescents. Of course, there are A words that I've left out that also relate to middle level education, and before we move on to the next letter, I'd like to pay tribute to those words now.
- Abilities: As middle school educators, we must continually remind our students that they have powerful abilities—abilities that need to be cultivated, nurtured, and celebrated. And as middle school educators, we must recognize and honor our own abilities and push each other to continually hone our pedagogical craft.
- Art: Teaching is an art form, and it demands that we practice it passionately, consistently, and with commitment to the craft. We need to support each other as artists, allowing for creative risk-taking in the classroom and embracing the messy reality that is educational artwork. And as a content area, art should be included in every classroom—not just in art class. Giving students the chance to demonstrate mastery through art is a glorious thing!
- And: Of all the conjunctions I know, I am a huge fan of And. While I'm also a fan of the skepticism of But and Or, I am crazy about And. It represents what young adolescents need and what we need from each other. And is the positive connector. The affirmative bridge-maker. The welcoming water of opportunity that carries us onward. Instead of "You can do this, but you can't do that," what would happen if we said to students and to each other, "We can do this and that. We can dream this and that. We can explore this and that"? And has the power to kick down fences that may limit young adolescents and ourselves.
- Accountability: Oh boy, this one can be a doozy. At the risk of irritating some folks, I have to admit that I don't think accountability in education is such a bad thing. In many ways, it's just another way of saying responsibility. We are responsible and accountable for the educational wellness of our students—just like doctors are responsible and accountable for the health and wellness of their patients. So how did accountability get such an ugly reputation? Perhaps that happened when we started to tie teachers' pay to accountability systems. Or perhaps it happened when high-stakes tests became the paramount accountability measure we used to determine a teacher's and a school's worth. Perhaps we need to take accountability back and reclaim it as a positive, driving force for responsible school work.
- Act: As teachers and leaders in the middle grades, we are wonderful actors. And I don't mean that we put on false personas and read from scripted lines to manipulate people and situations. Rather, I mean that we are talented actors who know how to adjust our words, mannerisms, tones, and even our props for the various audiences with whom we interact. In a 10 minute span, we can unjam a locker, soothe a kid in crisis, email an eager parent, and collaborate with a teammate on a lesson plan. I realize that the Oscars just concluded, but I think middle level educators deserve Academy Awards for the exceptional performances we do on a daily basis. Where's our gold statue and after party? Act also means that effective middle level educators do something when they sense that a child is in crisis or when they realize that a child is struggling in their class. That's the difference between showing up and stepping up. We act and we step up.
- Awards: Speaking of awards, how do we increase recognition so more students are celebrated? It's good to award students for high academic achievement through end-of-the-semester ceremonies. It's nice to hand out certificates for perfect attendance at the end of the year. But typically, it's the same students getting those awards. And the same students not getting those awards are feeling ignored. In addition, how do we increase teacher recognition so more educators are also celebrated? Clearly, it's great to have a way to recognize a Teacher of the Year, but could we do more to shine a light on best practices and best teaching? And, of course, this raises the debate of how awards detract from intrinsic motivation—a topic best left for another time and another blog.
- Awareness: in the middle grades, awareness is a key ingredient—because of the amount and pace of change that young adolescents go through; because of their predilection for risk-taking behaviors; because of their often mercurial emotions that influence decision-making; because of their ardent and sometimes arduous search for identity, acceptance, and belonging. It all happens so quickly that we need to be keenly aware, which means noticing the large, sweeping changes that our students make as well as the small, subtle ones—and then taking the time to act on that awareness. Because when we were young adolescents, we wished we had that support. This also means that we watch out for the adults in our buildings. We need to be aware of teachers who may be dealing with challenges personally or professionally, and we need to act on that awareness. Because when we are struggling in our classrooms or in our lives, we wish we had that support. We deserve it. Our students deserve it.
So there's the final A list of A words for the ABCs blog. What A words would you add that reflect the critical middle grades? And stay tuned, eager readers, for the next letter around the bend for the ABCs blog!
All in for Middle Level Education Month!
You can't write an ABCs blog about middle level education with the letter A and not write about Adolescents. Not only are they the reason why we celebrate Middle Level Education Month in March, but they are the main magnificent reason why we do what we do. They are also the reason we don't what we don't. What does that mean? In order to answer that curious question, it's important to remind ourselves about their unique characteristics because they are unlike anybody else on this planet.
In This We Believe (pp. 53-62), we are reminded about the true nature of adolescent achievement. Typically, when we talk about achievement, we discuss grades, added-value, measured progress, and assessment results, but these pages always help me remember that adolescents are trying to achieve in many different areas. Specifically, they are trying to find success in 5 key areas we can't ignore:
- Physical: Adolescents are going through the most rapid physical change of their lives, and they are doing so at irregular rates. That's why we have students in the same school who are already gifted athletes sprinting, throwing, and dancing like professionals as well as students who are earnestly working through the essentials of coordination, balance, and movement.
- Cognitive-Intellectual: Like their bodies, adolescents' brains are also growing and changing at a rapid rate, and that change can be similarly uneven. That's why they tend to act impulsively and make risky decisions without thinking them all the way through. There are changes going on in the frontal lobe; in the myelin sheath; in the synapses; and in the mental processing that affect foresight, organization, time-management and more. In addition, the increase in hormones affects how the brain responds to stress, fatigue, and crisis. That's why we have students who are making tremendous leaps in abstract, divergent thinking as well as students who are working through concrete, sequential thinking. In fact, the only other time that we develop this quickly is birth to three years old.
- Moral-ethical: Adolescents are beginning to see their immediate world and the larger world as the morally complicated landscapes they are. As a result, our students are often at conflict with the world as it is and the world as they think/hope/dream it should be. Their “moral thermometers” are still taking shape as they gauge the ethical temperature of a situation; therefore, in their search for justice, they sometimes are quick to measure others' flaws while they are slow to see those same flaws in themselves. That's why we have students who are able to grasp society's missteps (and its magnificence) and help peers solve conflicts as well as students who are raging because they feel like no one gets them, the world is totally messed up, and they are all alone.
- Psychological: Adolescents are wrestling with issues of identity at all times: figuring out who they are, who they used to be, who they want to be, how they fit in, how they stand out, why they matter, what/who matters to them, and more. As the rest of the world speeds by them with all the answers, it's like they're riding bikes in deep, soft sand: unbalanced, unsteady, difficult. At the same time, many young adolescents cry out for trust to express their identity and independence, yet many times, they aren't quite sure what to do when they are given a wide berth of freedom. They are, in short, both psychologically vulnerable and resilient. That's why we have students who are already developing strong, confident identities, passions and interests as well as students who are working through the gossamer of their selves every minute of every day.
- Social-emotional: Adolescents are examining external social situations that are increasingly complex, and they are trying to navigate those often turbulent waters using internal compasses and other tools that are still developing. That's why they sometimes misread and overreact to verbal and nonverbal language while wearing their hearts like vibrant neon lights on their sleeves. That's why we have students who are able to work cooperatively and be friends with anyone as well as students whose friends turn into frenemies and enemies and back again from homeroom to lunch.
So what does all of this mean to educators and other folks who work with young adolescents? First, awareness is a great first step that leads to service. When we are aware (and we make others aware), we are better able to meet young adolescents' unique needs. Second, positive change for young adolescents begins with that pronoun: we. It's not enough for one person on the grade level, team, or school to talk about meeting the needs of the whole child. It's about we. And us. It has to be a common acknowledgement of and commitment to the fact that young adolescents need learning environments that are “Developmentally Responsive, Challenging, Empowering, and Equitable” (This We Believe, p. 14). Because our students are filled with so much potential and possibility. They can be boisterous. They can be brilliant. They can be challenging. They can be change-agents. They can be demonstrative. They can be dreamers. They can be lazy. They can be leaders. They can be selfish. They can be selfless. They can be wild. They can be wonderful. We embrace the fact that a young adolescent has the potential to make us tear up from laughing or tear our hair out from frustration. We realize that a young adolescent has the potential to make us overjoyed from a sudden epiphany they've had or overwhelmed from their lack of foresight and decision-making. We know that a young adolescent has the potential to make us feel like a distinguished educator who can do no wrong or like an extinguished educator who can do no right. And those of us who work with young adolescents are thankful because all of that swirling potential is what fills our days with such energy and limitless possibility.
So how will you and your school celebrate young adolescents (and those who serve them) every day—and especially during the days in March for Middle Level Education Month?
Appreciative Things to do and My Appreciation List
Now that Valentine's Day is behind us, let's talk honestly about love and appreciation. The most important part of Valentine's Day is about what you do after Valentine's Day. It's about how you show your appreciation the next day and every day after—after the flowers have been delivered, the cards have been written, the candy boxes have been unwrapped, and the special dinners have been eaten. It's about the small things we do every day for each other. That's what real appreciation is all about.
So what's this have to do with middle level education? We know the deal: we all need to raise the praise and increase the appreciation in the middle grades. And yes, there are plenty of articles, blogs, posts, and books with practical tips and strategies on boosting morale and keeping faculty members happy and appreciated in schools. Take the time to read them—especially if you think appreciation is an overrated concept. Guess what? It's isn't. In fact, appreciation is super important.
Here's my quick list of things to do to amp up appreciation in our schools:
- Be the example. Spread appreciation around like it's soft butter on a warm biscuit. Like it's sunshine on a cloudy day. Like it's a cold and you are sneezing praise all over the place without a tissue. Leave your own baggage at the curb and genuinely thank someone.
- Get out there. An appreciative email is nice and convenient, but if you really want to show appreciation, go find the person and say it to them. It may be a little awkward at first, but nothing shows appreciation more than when they can hear it in your voice and see it in your face. And if that's just too much for you, call them on the phone.
- Do the expected. Take care of the things that teachers, students, and families are asking you to do and expecting you to do. When you fulfill your duties and responsibilities from a place of love, you show appreciation.
- Do the unexpected. Say the little positive thing to someone in the hallway. Put a glowing note on someone's desk or in someone's mailbox at a random time. Tell a student that you appreciate that they're in your class on some unexpected Wednesday afternoon. Deliver fresh biscuits to every teacher in your building on rollerblades while wearing a "Hot 4 Teacher" sign (something our admin team joyously did after testing…just because). Sometimes, appreciation doesn't necessarily need to be planned out and put on a checklist.
- Listen. Show appreciation in conversations. Instead of thinking about your own response/reaction/rebuttal, actually hush your mind and listen to the words that someone else is saying. And if they're sharing a problem, let them know you hear them and that their problem is real and you get it. Sometimes, people don't want you to be Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. They just want to talk it out with someone who appreciates them.
- Be real. When you raise the praise for someone, get emotional. Get specific. Get genuine. And if the moment arises and you have their permission, get public with your appreciation. Stand up in a faculty meeting and shout your love and appreciation from the rooftops! With that in mind....
Here's my post-Valentine's day appreciation list. What would yours look like?
I love and appreciate (knowing that I'm flawed and might forget someone):
- My wife who taught second grade for six years and now works at an elementary school as an aide for students with severe and profound needs. She busts it every day and does so with grace, care, and kindness. Oh, and she's also been through it all with me and our two boys when I was a teacher and administrator and continues to keep it real with me as I do what I do for AMLE.
- My two boys who amaze me every day with their boundless minds, hearts, and spirits. They, too, have been through it when I was an administrator and continue to rock and roar now that I'm with AMLE. I marvel at the amazing things they say, the awesome connections they make, and the futures that they are creating for themselves every day.
- My parents who showed me through their tireless example what it means to serve and to give back. My father was a US Marine for 29 years and retired so he could get his physical therapist degree and help people in need. My mother was an operating room nurse who worked in the most urgent situations and was on call all the time, but never complained.
- All the schools I attended and all the teachers I had who cared for me, who put up with me, who connected with me, who pushed me, who made me feel like I made difference in the world—and as a military child (not a brat), I attended a lot of schools (both public and Dept of Defense schools): Lilyputs and McGogney Elementary in D.C.; John B. Dey Elementary in California; Pattimura Elementary in Jakarta; Alanton Elementary, Lynnhaven Jr. High, and Frank W. Cox HS in Virginia Beach; Lejeune HS in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina; and JMU and GSU, too. I don't want to call out specific teachers here because I'll probably forget someone, and that's not the point. Every teacher had an impact on me, and I appreciate them.
- Tracy Sonafelt and Betsy Zimmer at Harrisonburg High School back in 1994, my first year of teaching. They made me feel welcomed at the school, while also showing me the ropes. And they never made me feel inept or inadequate—even though I'm sure I did some inept things as a first year teacher.
- My first students back in 1994 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I appreciate their tolerance as I tried to teach ninth and tenth grade Basic English as a first year teacher.
- Anita Jackson, Jane Jones, Barbara McGuire, Susan Messer, and all of the great folks at Ridgeview Middle School in Fulton County Schools in Georgia, who were there when I first started teaching middle school. Coming from a high school setting and from a different state, I was like a deer in headlights and they showed me how to embrace working with young adolescents.
- Vicki Denmark, who brought me on as a teacher at River Trail MS in Fulton County, who taught me as one of my best professors at Georgia State U., and who showed me what exceptional leadership looks like. I appreciate her wisdom and her guidance at all times.
- Elizabeth Fogartie and everyone at Webb Bridge Middle School in Fulton County. Ms. Fogartie brought me on as an assistant principal and gave me freedom to try new programs and initiatives to help students and teachers—and she also had high standards and expectations that helped me stay in line. And she continues to be a middle grades leader today. All of the teachers and staff at Webb Bridge helped me grow as an administrator with their patience, diligence, and humor. I used to make them homemade cookies to show my appreciation during the school year, but I know there aren't enough cookies in the world to show my appreciation.
- All of the people in the Haynes Bridge Middle School community who supported me during my time there.
- Sherri Black, former principal at Big Creek Elementary School, who took a chance on a middle school educator and brought me on as her assistant principal. Among the many lessons I learned, I appreciate everything you taught me about elementary school life and about speaking with one voice as an administrative team.
- The entire AMLE team—present and former. I appreciate you setting the stage for everything we do in the middle grades and for bringing me on the team. We are a merry band of misfits, and I appreciate each and every one of you. I appreciate how you work so tirelessly to bring great resources to folks everywhere, to serve with grace and joy, and to amplify the voices of middle grades educators everywhere.
- All of the educational consultants I work with at AMLE who really get it. You, who show your appreciation and honor for the cause of education. You, who understand that the real, real, real work is being done in the classrooms and schoolhouses. You, who understand that we're in a privileged position to go out and deliver workshops, have conversations about teaching and learning, and offer suggestions through our content. You, who drive the miles, take the flights, pack the bags, leave your families, plan the sessions, do great jobs—all for middle level education.
- All of the middle level educators out there who are doing the work in the field and serving young adolescents, their families, and the critical cause of middle level education. Because I've been in the classroom and in the administrative office, I know you are busting your hind parts each and every day to make all of this happen.
Again, I know that I may have forgotten someone on this appreciation list—and that's because my brain is addled and also because no list is ever done. So now that Valentine's Day is over, it's time for all of us to show the love and appreciation. So get out there, be real, make a list, and share it with the people who matter and who you appreciate in the critical middle grades.